The other day, I got into a discussion with someone about how students are taught tolerance in school rather than acceptance. That hit home with me and got me thinking about the difference between tolerance and acceptance.
Of course we should be tolerant of others, right? If someone practices a different religion, has different political beliefs, is from a different country, is of a different race or ethnicity or a different sexual orientation, we should have tolerance for those differences. We have museums of tolerance which remember events such as the Holocaust, and students are taught in school to tolerate others different from them.
Curious about the actual definition of tolerance, I dipped into my old paper version of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (Tenth Edition). Here are two definitions of tolerance that I think apply:
2a: sympathy or indulgence for beliefs or practices differing from or conflicting with one’s own
2b: the act of allowing something: TOLERATION
Sympathy and indulgence seem like good qualities. But when we’re being sympathetic to those different from ourselves, it’s almost as if we are sympathizing with their wrongness. We know in many cases the person can’t help being different (they can’t change their skin color or how they might be disabled, for instance). So we sympathize with the fact that they came out wrong.
By the same token, being indulgent of those differences seems terribly patronizing. Again, it’s as if we know in reality that the other person is wrong in believing differently, in being of a different ethnicity, of being gay or disabled. Nevertheless, we tolerate, we indulge that difference.
What if instead we were to practice acceptance of those different from ourselves? What would that look like? Here’s how Merriam-Webster defines acceptance:
3: the act of accepting : the fact of being accepted : APPROVAL
Approval. What would it be like if we not only tolerated those different from us, but approved of them? What if we approved and accepted them as they are, without conditions, without any sense that different=wrong? What if that were what children were taught in school, if those museums were museums of acceptance? Somehow it makes my heart lighter just thinking about it.
But, you might say, I don’t agree with their politics. I don’t agree with their religion. But here’s the thing. Acceptance does not equal agreement. We can accept someone’s different way of thinking or believing, but we don’t have to agree with it. We can even love them despite our disagreement. And of course we must accept physical differences because why would we not? That’s just another way of being.
So yes, tolerance at a minimum. But acceptance, giving up that sense of wrongness in the “other,” is to me the real goal.